Vail Daily columnist Jack R. Van Ens: Chicanery has always plagued Wall Street
Occupy Wall Street protesters chant, “If you pilfer $100, you are a thief. If you filch $100,000, you are an embezzler. If you steal $1 million, you are a financier.”
This cynical jab is aimed at investors who made gargantuan profits lending to unqualified buyers and then bundling these risky loans to other shady peddlers. After this real estate market plummeted, Wall Street’s czars accepted Uncle Sam’s bailouts and then rewarded themselves with fat bonuses.
Can you blame taxpayers for slipping into cynicism, jamming cyberspace with this reminder: “Remember when teachers, public employees, Planned Parenthood, NPR and PBS crashed the stock market, wiped out half of our 401Ks, took trillions in taxpayer-funded bailouts, spilled oil in the Gulf of Mexico, gave themselves billions in bonuses and paid no taxes? Yeah, me neither. … Pass it on.”
Detractors of the Occupy Wall Street movement cavalierly dismiss them as leftover hippies from the ’60s, leftists who sport tattoos and bejewel their physiques with body piercings. Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain, when asked on Oct. 5 about the anti-Wall Street protesters, quipped, “If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself.”
Mitt Romney, the other Republican front-runner, initially dismissed the movement as “class warfare.” He toned down such snarky chatter when campaigning in New Hampshire. Now he commiserates with the 99 percent who struggle in a lackluster economy with employment hard to get and medical costs escalating. Meanwhile, Cain and Romney, part of the lucky 1 percent, continue their posh lifestyles.
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Some Americans sense what prompts protesters to rally against Wall Street. Margaret G. Little, an 82-year-old grandmother and retired teacher, is wiser and more compassionate than Cain and Romney. She’s upset at “big-moneyed interests symbolized by Wall Street.”
Little writes, “It is time for everyone to take off his blinders and see the facts: 30 years of accelerated, unhealthy income distribution, too many years of artificial living standards built on credit, too many years of unfunded, unnecessary war, too many years of commitment to capitalism without rules, too many years of ‘individual liberty’ trumping serious thought about how our society could live well together within our means” (Wall Street Journal, October 18, 2011, p. A16).
Former pizza mogul Cain and investor Romney skew what history makes abundantly clear. With their pro-business and anti-government message, these candidates pit Joe the Plumber against Big Government. They fail to recognize how Big Business controls citizens. When the government relaxes regulations, it’s not true that laissez-faire capitalism succeeds. As the government abdicates its responsibilities, Big Business rushes in to fill the vacuum, taking financial advantage of citizens.
The late historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. made this compelling fact evident to Wall Street Journal readers on June 7, 1995: “The assault on the national government is represented as a disinterested movement to ‘return’ power to the people. But the withdrawal of the national government does not transfer power to the people. It transfers power to the historical rival of the national government and the prime cause of its enlargement – the great corporate interests.”
Financial chicanery occupying Wall Street is as old as our republic’s birth. Such vice infiltrates the stock market when government’s regulatory agencies are lax.
In 1792, Alexander Hamilton’s friend William Duer maneuvered to control Wall Street in government bonds and bank shares. Duer served as ringleader in a scheme called the Six Percent Club because he tried to manipulate government bond prices yielding 6 percent. With feverish buying, the market spiked. Then panic selling set in as the worth of those bonds went south.
Thomas Jefferson protested against greedy financiers whose mania for money was “destructive of morality” and “introduced its poison in the government itself.” He sounded like an Occupy Wall Street protester. When two dozen financiers went bankrupt because of Duer’s skullduggery and he was thrown in debtors’ prison, Jefferson fumed. He scorned Big Business, writing that “the credit and fate of the nation seem to hang on the desperate throes and plunges of gambling scoundrels.”
During the 1932 presidential campaign, Franklin Delano Roosevelt advocated Big Government because our nation had a moral duty to care for the destitute in the Great Depression. He also campaigned hard against Big Business because Wall Street played a leading role in this disaster and pointed fingers at other culprits, rather than owning responsibility.
When composing his famous first inaugural address, delivered on March 4, 1933, FDR remembered how Jesus cleansed the temple of financial impropriety by overturning “the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons … (Mark 11:15). “Practices of unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, respected by the hearts and minds of men,” Roosevelt’s lilting tenor voice reminded the inauguration’s crowd.
They burst into applause as FDR used scriptural imagery to declare unregulated Wall Street is dangerous, crafty and takes advantage of citizens. Sounding like a biblical prophet, he proclaimed “the money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore the temple to its ancient truths.”
Cain and Romney need a refresher course on U.S. financial history. Wall Street’s corruption grows when government forsakes its duty to cleanse Manhattan’s concrete canyons of rotten financial deals.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.